Special Counselors, Special Campers

Whenever Ronnie Greenwald, z”l, the founder and director of Camp Sternberg, proposed a new idea to his Board of Directors, they expected to hear something “out of the box.” But his latest idea was “off the wall”!

“I’m going to choose a group of special-needs children to join us this summer in camp,” Ronnie told them. “It will be a unique opportunity for them and the rest of the camp.”

“This is ridiculous!” the board responded. “How will the campers interact with them? How will the parents react? It’s never been done, and it will ruin the camp’s reputation!”

“Exactly!” said Ronnie with his customary whimsical exuberance. “And that’s why I plan for this bunk to sit right in the front of the dining room, so all the campers and staff will pass by and get to know them. They’ll love it!”

Ronnie Greenwald’s dream was the board’s nightmare, while once again he proved that he was way ahead of his time. Today, nearly every mainstream camp has a special-needs bunk, and they bring joy and spirit to the rest of the camp.

Harmony Services, a day-habilitation program located in Brooklyn, New York, one of many outstanding day-habs servicing the Jewish community, specializes in servicing high-functioning special-needs young adults. “Our programs are very goal-oriented,” says Mrs. Leah Hirth, Executive Director of the program.. “Every one of our clients has set goals, whether in personal advancement or in developing social or vocational skills. During the year they work hard and achieve these objectives, but in the summer they really make huge strides and thrive in different areas. The dedication of the teenage counselors and with the encouragement and friendship of the rest of the other campers propels them to realize their capabilities and attain great success. All this and more is a result of the devotion of our dedicated supervisors and young counselors, who give their hearts and souls to these very special individuals.”

Yaakov Cohen is the year-round assistant program coordinator for the boys’ program, called Kinor Dovid, but in the summer his role is a combination of director, head counselor and social worker as he supervises the boys’ program in Camp Rayim.

“At orientation,” Yaakov relates, “I tell the staff that although they may think they’re doing the clients a favor by ‘sacrificing’ their own summer fun, in the end they will see that the campers are doing them a favor! The sense of accomplishment and daily lessons they learn will last a lifetime, and are often life-altering.”

The first prerequisite for staff at Camp Kinor Dovid is possessing a heart broad enough to give to others. Hiring male staff for the first half of the summer can be challenging, since it is often in the middle of the zman in yeshivos. (Assembling the staff for the second half is somewhat easier, as successful counselors, mostly from Yeshiva of Englewood, often return for another season and encourage their friends and siblings to join.) Last summer, a “Heavenly guided” mix-up had Yaakov call Rabbi Silberberg of Sinai Academy, a yeshivah high school for immigrants from Russia. As a result Camp Kinor Dovid had the zechus to become a composite kiruv/special-needs program.

“The way they fed off each other was amazing,” Yaakov relates as he reminisces about the memorable first half. “The kedushah of Shabbos was new to many of these boys. Our campers love the singing and clapping for zemiros, and the counselors were inspired by them. But what really hit home was how they learned the concept of chessed from the campers. Many of the counselors never saw such giving and sharing, and when they experienced it, they responded in kind by giving their full attention, care and love to their campers.”

Patience and flexibility are high on the list of character traits required of a counselor. “The counselors are constantly faced with new situations when things may not go the way they planned,” explains Yaakov. “Imagine that you just changed into a clean shirt, and your camper greets you with a pat on the back with his muddy hand. Our counselors smile and return the greeting with the same cheerfulness [with which] it was given. They develop exceptional middos, as they work on themselves to accept whatever comes their way.”

The Kinor Dovid bunk has a matzav all its own, as the dedicated, young counselors lead them in well-planned activities that maintain their structured environment. The counselors take them swimming, play ball with them, and join them as they sing and dance to their hearts’ content.

“Our counselors go well beyond the call of duty to help the campers. One counselor is a talented professional musician; he sets up his keyboard to perform an impromptu concert when it’s raining and we can’t go outside,” Yaakov relates. “Before long, lots of campers from the main camp join in, getting caught up in the excitement of the singing and dancing.”

With the encouragement of the staff, Camp Kinor Dovid joins the camp for davening, and they love to participate when the entire camp sings together. In the dining room as well, they show their spirit during bentching. They cheer on the camp team as it plays against other teams at night activity. The supervisors work with the camp staff to integrate the campers wherever possible, even dividing up the boys for the end-of-summer rite known as Color War. Seeing the other boys high-fiving the Kinor Dovid boys is a symbol of the relationship that bonds them.

Like the other campers, Kinor Dovid boys have a learning period each day, continuing their year-long Torah studies. “Most of the boys are capable of learning parashah, halachah and even Mishnayos. Some learn Gemara, and attend the shiur given by Hagaon Harav Dovid Feinstein, shlita, every Friday,” Yaakov states with pride. “We have special Rebbi-mentors who give classes. But our wonderful staff members volunteer to help in this part of the program in their free time. On Erev Shabbos the camp has a learning-and-cholent seder, and the counselors volunteer to learn Mishnayos with the boys. Once a Rebbi missed a week because of a simchah; some of the counselors formed a rotation to take over his shiur. They did it for the campers, and also so their friends in charge of these children would get some well-deserved down time.”

Going beyond the call of duty is the norm for Kinor Dovid counselors. One camper liked to stay up and sing the latest popular songs, which kept the others awake. The counselors took him out on the porch, and the nighttime sing-along became part of their routine!

A camper was struggling to maintain proper hygiene. His innovative counselor persuaded him to stay in the shower until the song he played for him was over.

Parents of the counselors frequently notice the changes they see in their sons as they complete their job at Camp Kinor Dovid. For some, their self-confidence receives a boost as the feeling of “I helped” sinks in. Whether by helping a camper with sports, coaching him while he refills the soda and candy machines, or encouraging him to reach his personal goals, the feeling of accomplishment helps breed a sense of responsibility that makes up for any fun the counselor may miss during the summer, and endures longer.

During the year Yechiel Hirth, the program director , planned their annual Shabbaton in Tarrytown, without revealing that the camp staff would join the boys for the weekend in the hotel. What a surprise for the Kinor Dovid boys when the counselors arrived at the hotel, and together with the devoted year-round staff they had an exciting Shabbos reunion.

The bond between the counselors and campers continues long after the summer ends, as many counselors keep in touch even after they return to their respective yeshivos. “Look who called me,” the boys shout as they excitedly show their phones around to the friends. “My counselor from camp just called to say Gut Shabbos!”

A separate program to provide day-hab services for girls, Kinor Malka, runs under the same guidelines as Kinor Dovid, and they divide their summer program, spending the first half in Camp Emunah and the second half in Camp Bnos.

As with the boys’ program, Kinor Malka is staffed by mature teenage girls committed to tending to the special campers under their care. Each day packed with recreational activities and trips requires utmost dedication from the counselors.

“At the interviews,” a supervisor recounts, “I tell the summer staff that unlike other positions where they may be given one day off each week, in Kinor Malka we can give them only one day off each month. But we get no complaints, because the counselors get so attached to the campers and the program. They want to be with them as much as possible.”

Many counselors return season after season, spending their summer vacations of all their high school years bringing joy and excitement to their special campers. But the directors of Kinor Malka reserve a few slots each year for seminary students returning from Israel, who scramble to be awarded one of the coveted positions for the second half of the summer at Camp Bnos.

The day they arrive at Camp Emunah for the first half of the summer, Kinor Malka joins the camp for a night activity of roller skating. “One counselor spent the entire evening helping her camper navigate around the rink just one time, totally oblivious to the other girls who were zipping around again and again. This is the typical dedication of our summer staff we see day in and day out.”

“Our campers are happiest when they are very busy,” Mrs. Hirth explains. “If the bus taking them on their trip is delayed, a counselor takes out her guitar and starts a kumzitz, with the girls singing and clapping along until they’re ready to leave.”

The parameters of the job are constantly expanded by the counselors as they seek ways to ensure that each camper gets the maximum benefit from the program. “We respect our staff, recognizing they are some of the finest Bais Yaakov students around. We treat them well, offering them many amenities. Also, we accept only high-functioning campers who don’t have deficiencies in their nighttime routines. Yet when a counselor discovered that her camper was temporarily lacking, she would not hear of having her sent home. She set an alarm for every three hours to help the camper, and together they managed to happily complete the summer program.”

A camper required a gluten-free diet, so the kitchen staff prepared gluten-free pancakes, pasta, etc. for her. Her counselor, who wanted to make sure this girl would be able to eat her meals together with the rest of the campers, was careful to arrive early at meals and retrieve the specially-prepared foods in advance, presenting them to her camper at the same time the rest of the girls received their meals.

Kinor Malka is integrated with the rest of the camp, and Shabbos is a special time to demonstrate the bond between them. The Bnos campers spend their afternoons visiting with their Kinor Malka friends, taking them for a walk, playing games or just shmoozing with them, giving their hard-working counselors a well-deserved respite for a few hours.

One of the most memorable scenes in the history of Camp Kinor Malka, and perhaps Camp Bnos as well, was the Shiur Event planned by the administration. The Kinor Malka girls could be chosen for the machanayim game, but could they present a dvar Torah to the entire camp? A counselor chose one girl and spoke with her mother to ask for permission to prepare her for her speech to the camp. At first hesitant, the mother agreed when she understood that her daughter really wanted to do this.

Counselor and camper spent quite a while preparing, reviewing and practicing the delivery of her speech. The entire camp sat with rapt attention as she rose and delivered the dvar Torah with clarity and poise, with nary a dry eye in the entire camp as they shepped nachas.

Special counselors, special campers; special friends.

“Out of the box”…. But all agree that the special counselors and special campers of Kinor Dovid and Kinor Malka are “out of this world.”

Mi k’amcha Yisrael!